What Is a Healthy Church?
by Reinder Bruinsma | 27 November 2020 |
The church is a voluntary social organization, but it is a social organization of a very special kind, as membership will often have a much greater impact on one’s total life than other memberships usually have. Most Christians would also argue that it is different because of its origin and its God-given mandate.
The term “health” here is used in a metaphorical sense; namely, that of general wellbeing. In the past, health used to be defined mostly in terms of the absence of sickness. But today the description given by the World Health Organization, first formulated in 1946, is generally accepted: health is a state of complete mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Thus when the term “healthy” is used to characterize the church, it suggests that it is not just important that the church has no major problems and does not suffer from serious conflicts or is marked by deteriorating strength, but is energetic and constitutes a community in which the members find a good spiritual home where they can develop their spiritual talents and grow in their faith.
Peter L. Steinke, a congregationalist systems consultant, states that, just as we must see our biological body in terms of a system rather than a collection of body parts, we also need to see the church (congregation or denomination) as a system. A healthy church is not as an organization that is without troubles, but one that “actively and responsibly addresses or heals its disturbances.”
A superficial view
When speaking of the denomination, often the emphasis is on numerical size and positive growth patterns. The fact that a church is growing in numbers suggests vitality and dynamism—especially when this is a sustained growth over a substantial period of time. Economic prosperity is often seen as another sign of a healthy denomination. A church with a budget that allows for nice buildings, adequate staffing, and developing a diverse offering of programs and activities is considered healthy, for it shows that the members feel involved and are willing to support their church financially.
Denominations also point to their institutions—seminaries, health institutions, etc.—and to their glorious history as signs of health. Having a nation-wide or even a strong international presence is seen as a sign of health.
Although success shouldn’t only be counted in terms of growing membership lists and annual budgets, institutional strength and geographical presence, they are legitimate concerns. We do notice in the New Testament that repeated reference is made to the numbers of men and women that were added to the church (Acts 2:41,47). And material support for the church is often a sign of commitment to the mission of the church. Moreover, the missionary mandate that Christ gave to his church (Matthew 28:19, 20) suggests that penetrating new places with the message of Christ should be a natural ambition.
Yet, all of this remains a rather superficial way of measuring the church’s health. A satisfactory answer to the question as to what constitutes a healthy church must be based on a sound ecclesiology.
The marks of the church
When the New Testament speaks of the church, it recognizes relationships between local churches, but the word “church” refers most frequently to the local church in Rome, in Corinth or in Ephesus. While denominations must be healthy, they will never qualify as such when the local congregations that constitute this denomination are not healthy.
Through the ages the question has been what aspects must be present in an organization to qualify as “church” in the true sense of the word. Theologians give four key terms: (1) unity; (2) holiness; (3) apostolicity; and (4) catholicity. These marks of the church are traditionally referred to as the notae ecclesiae. The words were already present in the Nicene Creed, as reworded by the Council of Constantinople in 381: “[I believe] in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” They stress (1) the “oneness” of all Christians in Christ; (2) the desire to be “holy” in the biblical sense of the word:, i.e., to be “set aside for the service of Christ; (3) the recognition that the message of the church must correspond with that of the first apostles; and (4) the universality of the church, without geographical, cultural, linguistic and other limits.
The ecclesiology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has long been underdeveloped. In the earlier phases of Adventism the focus was on what the church—the Adventist denomination—should preach and should do, rather on defining its nature and developing a theology of the church. From its beginning the Adventist Church claimed to have a special unique message.
But this does not take away from the fact that in many ways it built on the views and experiences of other Christians and was quite eclectic in its adoption of its organizational model—both on the local level and the higher levels of the ecclesial structure. In the course of its history of just over 175 years, Adventism has been quite pragmatic in finding ways of fulfilling its mission as effectively as possible. Whether or not all of this has made Adventism a truly healthy church remains a very pertinent question.
Ten Characteristics of a healthy community
It seems that the notae ecclesiae, as noted above, ought to be recognized and applied as the basis for an organic, constructive and spiritual functioning of the church. This is true for every Christian community. But Seventh-day Adventists may want to add that being healthy would always imply that the church—at every level—retains the identity as a special movement and remains focused on its mission.
So let me offer my own list of what makes a church (both local and, by extension, denominational) a healthy church.
Built on Truth. A church is not just a group of people who gather for social activities or who have agreed to provide humanitarian or cultural services. The church is built on the conviction that it has a mission to search for Truth and to share this Truth with others. This Truth has, first of all, a relational character. Christ proclaimed that he is the Truth (John 14:6) and therefore this search for Truth implies that a follower of Christ will seek a relationship with him and will see it as his/her mission to help others to also enter into such a relationship.
The natural desire to explore the meaning and practical impact of this relationship will lead to a theological process, which will result in a doctrinal structure. However, this propositional content of the Christian faith must always remain dynamic. A faith community must always be willing to progress and, if necessary, change—also in the area of its doctrinal understanding.
Healthy faith vs. toxic faith. “Too often, what began as an authentic relationship with God deteriorates into a defective faith with an incomplete or poisoned view of God.” The faith of an individual may become corrupted and cease to be a relationship of trust and love between him/her and God. But it is also possible for a faith community—in particular, a local faith community—to gradually fall into some very serious pitfalls. When the faith experience of a majority of the members moves more and more towards a fundamentalist view of the Bible, and when it becomes legalistic (and even perfectionistic) in its attitude and practice, this faith community loses its health. Other dangers that may lead to a toxic faith are conspiracy thinking, the over-emphasis on traditions and rituals, and an imbalance between mind and emotions.
A clear identity. A healthy church must know why it exists.
Seventh-day Adventists are part of God’s church—visible and invisible—and they have many brothers and sisters in other faith communities. The church extends far beyond the organizational boundaries of Adventism. At the same time, every faith community must also know what distinguishes it from other churches. Therefore, Adventists know why they exist and what role they play on the Christian scene. The fact that they preach the gospel message with specific emphases, i.e., with elements that are not readily found among other Christians, should not lead them to think of other Christians as enemies but rather as allies in fulfilling the gospel commission.
A clear task. A healthy church that has a clear awareness of its mission will focus on the effectiveness of its witness rather than on organization building. While it wants to win men and women to Christ, it will make sure it is not obsessed by numbers, as if numerical growth is the surest sign of continuing or increased health. While acknowledging the value of doctrinal content, the first goal is to reach people with the gospel rather than to promote a particular doctrinal system. People need to be converted rather than indoctrinated.
A healthy church will place a strong emphasis on equipping its members and on developing their communication skills, so that their message will have obvious relevancy and will resonate with the daily life of the hearers, and will be understood as “present truth.”
Concern for justice. A healthy church does not focus exclusively on correct doctrine (orthodoxy), but on correct moral practice (orthopraxis). In a healthy church all barriers between different ethnic groups, between men and women, and between those with different sexual orientations, have been removed. The differences exist, but they are celebrated as part of the diversity of God’s creation and have ceased to be excuses for discrimination in whatever form.
A healthy church is a church that promotes peace and seeks to contribute to tangible efforts to reduce violence at all levels of society. It will be in the forefront in the fight against poverty and homelessness. It is constantly reminded of the prophetic words of the Old Testament that God does not enjoy pious rites and ceremonies when there is no regard for justice (Micah 6:8)
High ethical standards. A healthy church operates on the basis of high ethical standards. It values transparency in all its business dealings and in governance. It will eschew all dubious forms of proselytizing and, through a careful and pastoral disciplinary approach, model high ethical standards of behavior to the “outside” world.
The priesthood of all believers. A healthy church gives more than lip service to the biblical principle of the priesthood of all believers. It acknowledges and seeks to utilize the talents and spiritual gifts of all its members. It does not allow for hierarchy building and power plays, but seeks to practice true servant leadership. It is committed to clear organizational processes in which policies are applied in a fair and always emphatic manner.
A biblical view of diversity. Unity does not require uniformity. In fact, unity without diversity tends to be an unnatural and enforced unity. The Triune God is the supreme embodiment of the principle of diversity, and his creation gives abundant evidence of his predilection for diversity. The story of the building of the Tower of Babel reminds us that God wanted humanity to populate the world and develop their own cultures and speak their own languages. In our age of globalism and unparalleled migration, the church—certainly the Adventist Church—becomes ever more culturally and ethnically diverse. A healthy church is not blind for the challenges this creates but celebrates the richness of this diversity, and will gave space to people who want to “do” church differently and “live” their faith in their own traditional ways.
A healthy church is not afraid of diversity in theological views, as long as there is a reasonable degree of consensus about the key elements that belong to its identity. This demands that the members are willing (and equipped) to distinguish core issues from peripherals. It presupposes openness for dialogue and a willingness to listen to each other and be tolerant when views continue to differ. I fully agree with these words of New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann: “The Holy Spirit creates unity not only in spite of diversity, but precisely through it.”
A church of the Spirit. Unless a very diverse group of people is united by something, or rather: someone, who invigorates all our human efforts with super-human power, a church cannot be truly healthy. The Spirit must bring all members together and instill them with a sense of community—of truly belonging to the one body of Christ. And it is only through the Spirit that we can truly benefit from our reading of God’s Word and that we can pray. We need the Spirit to make the sacraments effective channels of grace and to hear the words of the preacher as the words of God.
A willingness to change. Just as our bodies develop, mature and change over time, the body of Christ must also grow and mature. This presupposes a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances and to change. New conditions and new challenges will require new approaches in church governance, worship and methods of communications. They may also require a new way of formulating the doctrinal content of our faith, so that our message will remain “present” truth. Willingness to change implies accepting risks. It calls for creative thinking and timely action. But for Adventist Christians it will always be driven by our fundamental hope.
A healthy church spills over into the daily life of the church members. The health of the community is not primarily a collective characteristic. A healthy body presupposes healthy members, who live their faith in a vibrant, attractive, and appealing manner. It has been said: “Religion that is contained only in a church building is a weekend hobby, not a personal faith.”
As stated at the beginning of this article: Health is more than the absence of sicknesses. This, as we saw, also applies to the church. Becoming a healthy church, and remaining so, is always work in progress, that requires careful and constant nurture, well-planned activities and alertness. Above all, it relies on the Source of Life that sustains it.
- Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach (Lanham, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 13. ↑
- Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2001 ed.), back cover. ↑
- Quoted in: Paul Jones, Worlds Within a Congregation: Dealing with Theological Diversity (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 32. ↑
- Senator James Lankford, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jameslankf742130.html. ↑
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education and church administration on three continents, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest book is I HAVE A FUTURE: CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AND MINE.